I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech recently, possibly due to over-exposure over the last few years to podcasters like Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and the like* (also known as “thought leaders,” a phrase that has a kind of irritating and infantilizing tone to it—please, tell me how to think!), not to mention tech leaders’ mantras that free speech above all other values prevents them from doing anything about hate speech or misinformation on their platforms.
“Speech” as a concept seems to have run into a wall. Or maybe it’s our conception of it that’s run into a wall. One some level, we know that words can hurt, and more specifically that online hate and misinformation campaigns can cause immense damage, not even precluding genocide. On the level of social action and public discourse, though, we disconnect it from “real life.” We seem to believe that what happens with words only comes from the mind and intellect and is incapable of having an effect on physical humans. The result of a mind-body disconnection in Western philosophical discourse that goes back centuries.
What happens when someone gets radicalized online and perceives a group of “others” as unwanted, as less than human? What about if they take a next step to commit some form of atrocity to rid society of what they perceive as an undesirable element?
It’s almost as if we think that the person who was being radicalized and the person who commits atrocities are two different people—the actor is a horrible person, but the online viewer is separate from that, a brain only, not a human whose entire being is affected by what they absorb online.
This problem can go society-wide. Propaganda plays out in the voting box and can warp both our values and democracy’s ability to function. Or early in the pandemic, when people who only got their news from Fox had higher rates of coronavirus infection until people like Sean Hannity started talking about Covid-19 as a real thing rather than disparaging it as a hoax. (I live in a rural state with an aging and generally conservative population, so this was something I wondered about early on, how infection rates might intersect with areas that have low population densities but more vulnerable populations who are also more inclined to watch conservative newsish [news-adjacent? hardly] media. Someone actually did a study on the effects of Hannity’s and Tucker Carlson’s portrayal of the virus on the infection rates of their viewers, and sure enough, rates were higher until they started talking about it as a real thing.) People’s actions are very much influenced by the words, opinions, and discourse they’re exposed to, which is common sense but these days seems to need hard evidence for at least some people to understand that it’s a real thing.
I don’t know what the right answer is to speech online, but I think it’s far more complex and nuanced than is served by simply refusing to limit speech in any way.** It’s one thing to host a volatile forum on Reddit and another when a concentrated campaign, possibly related to that volatile forum, damages an individual or population.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of some intensive verbal abuse, I know from experience that just because words are not physical weapons does not mean they fail to damage, often permanently. The first amendment’s free speech phrasing originally applied to a citizen’s right to criticize the government, and I understand that it’s vital to protect freedom of speech in all sorts of unrelated venues, but to blanketly apply that protection to any form or volume of verbal harassment both misses the point and cramps our ability to think widely about what we mean by both freedom and harm.
Speech is not just an action of the brain or the intellect. It is, like all actions, an act of the mind, of which the body is a part. And its effects are also received as a full mind-body experience. Perhaps like so many other things, enjoying its full freedoms requires us to have honest conversations with a level of maturity and self-reflection that few leaders, whether political or thought, are willing to engage in.
*I spent over two years listening to every Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson podcast episode, and as much Joe Rogan as I could make time for, trying to understand what they were all het up about. And then I asked my older sister to listen to a bunch of Peterson stuff and try to explain it to me because she’s smarter than I am (sorry, sis!). What we landed on is that Peterson has an inexplicable affection for hierarchy and a skewed perception of women. Harris just complains a lot, which is weird for someone who markets himself as a mindfulness expert. In the end what I decided is that these people and others like them started out trying to ask difficult questions, but very quickly got trapped in their own echo chambers and egos and provide little of value anymore, at least to me (unless you’re super into the Peterson videos about archetypes and so on, but went through the Joseph Campbell phase of life in high school and grew up in a household that had Carl Jung books around, so nothing about that feels new to me). This piece from Jacobin magazine about Peterson’s thinking and its many internal disconnects is one of the best things I’ve read on his . . . philosophy?
Just one thing:
Almost everyone I know has already voted but if you haven’t, VOTE. If you need inspiration or an uplift, a friend of mine participated in this amazing flash mob dance video. Makes me wish I could dance, but at least I can vote!